1942. German u-boats troll the waters along North Carolina’s outer banks, engaging American and British naval ships. This is World War II, and local residents feel their lives turned upside down. The Nazis have held these waters for six months.
Locals are locking their houses for the first time. Heck, some of them had to have keys made for those door locks. They tape black paper over the tops of their car headlights, Ford Coupes and Hudsons casting weak lights on the road directly in front of them.
Fearful rumors run amok in these bayside communities, whispers of midget submarines tucked among rocks and sea grass as German officers arrange for supplies from secret sympathizers. It’s become a parenting tool for some: “Tommy, get in here! It’s getting on dark. You want the Nazis to get you?”
One of the most persistent rumors going round Ocracoke Island has to do with the lights. Seems some folks have witnessed cars parked along the shoreline at night, tail lights flashing out across the waters. Probably those same Axis sympathizers, tapping out secret coordinates in Morse code to the Kaiser’s communications officers. Be on the lookout, y’all. This here’s got to stop.
On this particular night, two naval officers hoof it across the beach clutching regulation pistols. Through the gathering darkness they can see the Chevy sedan, running boards hovering above the sand, tail lights facing the watery war zone on the horizon. Salty air cuts through their uniforms, making them shiver. That must be the case. Surely they’re not shivering with fear.
“Can you see anybody?” whispers one man.
“Too dark,” hisses the other. “But I think I see some shadows moving around inside.”
Bent low at the waist, the two men make a wide semi-circle toward the waves. If anyone’s watching through a periscope out there, will their silhouettes be visible against the light sand? No time to think of that now. Gotta move fast.
“There’s the signal,” says the second man. Sure enough, the Chevy’s brake lights flash on briefly, then off. In a second they’re on again, this time for longer.
“You know Morse code?” asks the first.
“Huh-uh.” There’s a pause. “And even if I did, I don’t know that it would help. I don’t know German.”
Nothing for it now. They look around the deserted beach. Check their guns one final time. Try to swallow.
“I’ll get the door,” says the first man.
Together they drop to the sand, cold and damp at this time of night. They scuttle like lobsters running from the cook, right up to the car, watching those tail lights blink off and on, off and on. The second guy levels his pistol toward the car and gives a nod. The first guy grabs the door handle and yanks it hard.
This is a moment these two enlisted men will remember forever. So, two, will the young lovebirds inside that car—she of the mussed hair and quickly righted cotton dress, and he of the scuffling feet near the brake pedal.
“My secret joy is being able to preserve these stories and eye witness accounts,” says Kevin Duffus, maritime historian and documentary filmmaker. While many of the stories he has collected from this time are sad or terrifying, Duffus has plenty of tales that have more to do with the way war affects–sometimes humorously–the imagination of those nearby. “This was a time of myths in the making. A profound time [that shaped] the ‘greatest’ generation.”
Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt. She thanks Mr. Duffus for giving her the basic outline of the story above so she could play with it. More columns are available at www.AngelaDove.com.